Netflix’s new, animated comedy The Willoughbys, based on a children’s book of the same name by Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry, is an odd film— the narrating cat (voiced by Ricky Gervais) says as much after introducing the titular family, with its mustache-based heritage, commitment to child neglect, and pair of twin boys that share both the name Barnaby and a single, red sweater. For a few grating minutes, it seems as if that oddness will constitute its entire identity, an awkwardly self-aware attempt at a not-your-average-kids-story that combines the knowing darkness of A Series of Unfortunate Events with the colorful whimsy of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. Luckily, despite the occasional intrusions of the Gervais-cat that threaten to drag it down, this film’s oddness turns out to be its own (thoroughly enjoyable) thing.
Directed by Kris Pearn, The Willoughbys follows the four Willoughby children— legacy-obsessed Tim (Will Forte), optimistic singer Jane (Alessia Cara), and the aforementioned engineering-oriented Barnaby twins— as they try to improve their family by sending their horrible parents on a deadly vacation. When their plan ends up leaving them in the care of Linda (Maya Rudolph), the cheapest nanny their parents could find, they must decide whether rebuilding a family requires heredity and tradition or holding onto love wherever they can find it. This question leads the Willoughby children to such distinct places as a candy factory, an orphan jail, and “Sveetzerlünd,” illustrating just how difficult it is to capture its whole story with a single synopsis.
Though certainly fast-paced, how Kearn manages to fit so much plot into the 90-minute runtime without completely losing his audience is quite the mystery. A bloated narrative can leave too much underdeveloped and cause us to lose interest, but while The Willoughbys does suffer a little from the former, itis anything but boring. Its characters are endearing enough to stay engaging, and the film has just enough to say about family that we easily forgive it for leaving its other themes unexplored. It also benefits from quality craftsmanship, including vibrant animation that always offers something interesting to look at and voice performances that make the most of the cast’s comedic talent.
In fact, humor is by far the film’s greatest asset. Echoing its quantity-based approach to story, nearly every moment contains some joke or set piece, and while not all of them land, you barely have time to notice before something else has you laughing again. The comedy succeeds at reaching both kids and adults by alternating between cartoon slapstick and clever wordplay, though Kearn’s tendency to lean on the film’s central weirdness can be both strength and weakness. For example, the sweater-switching, hivemind antics of the Barnabys is consistently hilarious, but the parents’, well, unusual relationship gets uncomfortable very quickly. The positive firmly outweighs the negative, however, and The Willoughbys offers a fun escape for the whole family at a time when it is much appreciated.